Every year, around Thanksgiving, with an apparent lack of more important issues to discuss, the mainstream news media—if one can still refer to Fox News as mainstream news—revives the old cold war.
Not that Cold War, of course. The fear today is not of communists infiltrating our society to take away what we hold most dear: our freedoms and our way of life (though the fear is not dissimilar to the more recent iteration). I’m talking about…
The War on Christmas
If you didn’t know better you might think this “war” was a modern-day Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge story or a real life Grinch who “stole Christmas”—ironically, both cautionary tales about coldheartedness toward others—especially those in need—and general meanness resulting from personal loss and deep loneliness.
As a Christian minister who counts the Christmas story among the two most important stories in the Bible, I have a couple of thoughts about this “war.”
First of all, I think Christmas can stand up to the challenge of pluralism—of people who don’t happen to hold the Christmas story as formative in the same way I do. The story of Christmas is not so fragile, I don’t think. Hanukkah has never enjoyed cultural dominance and the celebration seems to being doing just fine. I don’t need to see a nativity scene on the grounds of City Hall to prop up my faith in God or my confidence in the central message of the Christmas story (more on that central message in a moment).
Secondly, if there is any violence done to Christmas I'm concerned it comes primarily from within the community of Christmas observers. The greatest risk to Christmas—and what Christmas might mean as a public good—is not in failing to say “Merry Christmas” or to put a nativity scene on public property.
It comes from getting the story wrong.
Is there a way that the Christmas story could be a public good? I think there is, and it’s found in the details of the story itself.
Jesus was born to peasant parents at a time of economic oppression. The reason Jesus’ folks were in Bethlehem and not their hometown of Nazareth when the auspicious moment arrived was that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had called for every person in the realm to be registered and taxed. The first of the Caesars to fancy himself a "Son of the Gods," Augustus wanted to consolidate his power and wealth.
Joseph and Mary head out for Bethlehem, some 80 miles to the south. If they could travel at 20 miles per day, which might be a challenge given Mary’s very pregnant condition, they could make the trip in 4 days.
And then there are the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy—very suspicious. Honestly, who is buying the story of Mary being empregnated by the Spirit of God?
This is not a good time. Jesus’ birth is clouded by imperial occupation, economic hardship, and social shame. Not only this but when King Herod of Judea hears about a so-called king being born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of some ancient prophecies, his pathology is aroused, and he orders all the babies two years old and under to be executed. So, add politically motivated violence to the list of horrors surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus narrowly escape from this infanticide as refuges to Egypt for a number of years.
As sentimental as we Christians can often get around Christmas, the actual story is harrowing. It is a story of the underclass being oppressed by the Empire.
Jesus then lives out his adult life as a friend of every type of oppressed, poor and outcast person. Finally...
...he is tracked down and murdered by the Roman Empire.
For Christians, the Christmas story means one thing: God has come to be with us. So the real war on Christmas, it seems to me, is distracting the world with questions of political correctness while we let the poor, sick and cast aside suffer under a similar imperial oppression. How God choses turn up in human history reveals so much about God's character and priorities.
It seems to me that those who would use the Christmas story as cover for their political agenda and to protect their middle class, Anglo-Saxon, privilege are waging the real war on Christmas.
The fact that we can deny DREAMers the chance to become citizens, in the name of a Palestinian refugee who was, himself, an immigrant, is the real war on Christmas.
That we could use Christmas as a source of cultural division when in the Biblical tradition Jesus was visited in that lowly stable by three wisdom teachers from the East is the real war on Christmas. The Christian tradition says that these three were an Indian, a Persian and an Arab (in the memorable words of that Jewish Scholar, Adam Sandler, “Not a Jew”).
So the visit of the three so-called Kings from the East makes the birth of Jesus a profoundly interfaith event indicating from the beginning that God did not send Jesus as a sectarian savior, but as someone who would love and seek the redemption of the whole world.
In the Christmas story, God identifies with the poor, the occupied, the refuge, the immigrant. It matters little whether you believe Jesus was immaculately conceived, or born to a literal virgin. It's not vital that you solve the riddle of whether and how Jesus is God in human flesh.
The important thing to experience for all of us, whether we think of ourselves as followers of Jesus or not, is the hope that the story of Jesus might inspire; that good could triumph over evil, that love wins in the end, that goodness and generosity, not greed and violence would have the last word.